President Obama announced Thursday that his administration will expedite approval for a series of projects intended to expand and modernize five major U.S. ports.
The move comes at a time when many governors and state leaders across the country -- especially on the East and Gulf coasts -- have called on the administration to speed up regulatory approval of the projects, arguing that they're integral to the state and local economies and are key to keeping the U.S. competitive in international trade.
The ports slated for speedier timelines are in Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Miami; Savannah, Ga.; and the Port of New York and New Jersey.
The issue has become increasingly critical in recent years, as Panama makes progress on an expansion of its canal that will vastly increase the size of ships that can travel through its waters. Larger "Post-Panamax" ships will be able to carry more than twice as much cargo as they did before.
That, in turn, has caused ports on the East and Gulf coast to pursue projects to deepen their own harbors, since the larger ships would scrape the bottom of the floor without improvements. Generally, ports on the West Coast are naturally deeper and don't face this problem. The situation was featured in this month's issue of Governing.
In March, the president ordered federal agencies to start identifying infrastructure projects of national and regional significance to be considered for aggressive permitting schedules. A total of 43 projects will eventually get that treatment, but these are the first.
The administration's actions will accelerate "feasibility studies," which must be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before any work can begin on deepening ports and often take an average of 10 years, according to port officials. In Jacksonville and Charleston, for example, the administration has committed to completing feasibility studies for their deepening projects in three years. For Jacksonville, that means the study will be done by April 2013; Charleston's is scheduled for completion by September 2015. Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that a feasibility study for its projects in Charleston -- initially launched in June 2011 -- would be sped up. The administration's recent announcement puts it on an even shorter timeline.
The administration also announced it's forming a task force to develop a federal strategy to determine the economic return on investments it might make to various ports. State leaders and port officials have bemoaned the fact that the federal government currently lacks a comprehensive ports strategy.
The federal government has gotten increasing attention to the challenges facing U.S. ports. In October, a House committee held hearings on the issue. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also in the process of developing a report -- ordered by the House and Senate appropriations' committees -- detailing how it should address the need for Post-Panamax capacity at U.S. ports. Transportation stakeholders and advocates praised the administration's announcement. "We applaud the administration’s new effort because it will have a significant impact on our nation’s economic prosperity and global competitiveness," said Marcia Hale, president of Building America's Future, in a statement.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was extremely critical of the administration's handling of the issue when Governing interviewed her earlier this spring, said the decision will be helpful. "This is a huge win for Charleston and for all of South Carolina," she said, according to Charleston's Post and Courier.